For Arafat's new security cop: gridlock
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Zuhair Manasrah, a tall, German-educated economist, holds one of the most powerful jobs in the Palestinian Authority (PA) at least in theory.
A proponent of the rule of law who speaks about the need to stop suicide bombers, he symbolizes reform in the PA again, in theory.
But reform in the PA is full of contradictions. Last week PA President Yasser Arafat appointed Mr. Manasrah to lead the PA's West Bank Preventive Security force, an agency responsible in part for keeping Palestinian militants from attacking Israel, but the members of the force are refusing to work with him.
Assuming Mr. Arafat talks down the Preventive Security officers, Manasrah will then have to do the same. Then he will have to rebuild the force's buildings, which the Israeli military has largely destroyed over the past three months.
At the same time, he will have to contend with the enduring presence of Israeli forces in areas that are supposed to be under Palestinian rule. To do his job, Manasrah says, the Israelis will have to pull out of these areas, and there is no sign that Israel is willing to do so.
So while President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demand that Palestinians quickly fashion a clean, smooth-functioning democracy with accountable security forces, Manasrah sits in his Ramallah living room, fielding phone calls, greeting visitors, and keeping half an eye on the television.
At any moment, the news might break that he is out of a job. "Until now," he said yesterday, "I still have it." But given the circumstances, as he said in an interview Saturday, "there is no job."
Arafat has not yet made clear why change was necessary at the top of the Preventive Security force. Its chief until now has been Col. Jibril Rajoub, a man who has won the confidence of US and European officials.
Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000, the Preventive Security force has embodied the contradictions that Arafat and other Palestinian leaders have faced.
On the one hand, Israel and its backers have demanded that the PA halt violence. On the other, the only politically viable stance among a people fed up with 35 years of Israeli occupation has been to endorse the fight.
Arafat has thus condemned acts of terrorism and issued some cease-fires, but has never fully cracked down, in both word and deed, on Palestinian militants.
"Rajoub has been absolutely consistent with Arafat about the need for ending ambiguity about violence and then for taking tough action," says a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
But Mr. Rajoub has had his problems. For one thing, Israel has asserted that he has done more to foment violence than stop it. Its forces attacked Rajoub's headquarters in April, and, rather than have his forces fight to the death, he ordered them to surrender. That decision cost Rajoub credibility among Palestinians.
Rajoub also has been seen as an aspiring leader of the Palestinians. Arafat tried to replace him in 1997, encountered resistance, and backed off. This time, Arafat may succeed.
And Rajoub has been a focus of US attempts to improve the Palestinian security forces. But his US connections may hurt him at a time when Bush is demanding new Palestinian leadership.
Manasrah seems an unlikely choice for the job. He is a longtime member of Arafat's Fatah faction and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but lacks the military bearing characteristic of Palestinian security chiefs.
"He's not someone with steel in his character," the Western diplomat says of Manasrah. Instead, he's "very cultured and sophisticated."
Israeli media reports have speculated that Arafat and his interior minister, appointed last month to reorganize the security forces, may have sought someone loyal and pliable. But it may also be true that the reorganization, which will lower the stature of the Preventive Security force, may have necessitated a new leader.
A conversation with Manasrah illustrates the tragedies of the moment. He speaks clearly about the need to convince Palestinians to abandon terrorism. "I have to say to them, in a convincing way ... that there is real hope for them to get a job, to get an income, to go on with their daily lives freely and without fear," he says. "In order to realize this hope ... we have to make all efforts to destroy obstacles and the main obstacle to that is violence against civilians."
But he admits that while he might say such a thing to a small group, he would never do so on television. "I'm afraid to be misunderstood."
Discussing his time as governor of the Jenin area, in the northern West Bank, Manasrah refers with pride to his efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. But he adds: "I don't want to speak about that. Because now it doesn't fit."
During a recent incursion, he adds, Israeli forces destroyed the building that housed Manasrah's cooperative venture.